Dominic Lawson: Voters just won't buy a federal Europe, Mr Clegg

We might come to feel part of a Europe-wide political community but it would take generations

Dominic Lawson
Tuesday 01 November 2011 01:00 GMT
(Debbie Powell)

First of all, let's dispense with the notion that those in favour of closer British integration within the European Union are all enlightened progressives and that those who oppose it are bowler-hat-wearing fuddy-duddies with incipient racist tendencies (that hardly describes Tony Benn, or the German-born Labour MP Gisela Stuart).

My favourite reactionary, the late Auberon Waugh, was wont to assert that he yearned for this country to be "governed by a junta of Belgian ticket inspectors". As ever with Bron, what appeared mere humour was in fact deadly serious. He went on to point out that the occupants of the Westminster parliament were "not only the wettest and most unpleasant, but the most incompetent politicians in Europe" and that therefore the more power removed from their hands and located in Brussels "the better we shall all be".

One problem with his analysis is that it is not disinterested Belgian ticket inspectors to whom we would be handing over our authority, but other politicians – and much as Waugh's views about British MPs might have become even more widely held since his death, the idea that we have the most corrupt, unscrupulous or even mad political leaders in Europe is not one that stands up to serious scrutiny. Exhibit A is Silvio Berlusconi. Then there is the would-be Napoleonic figure of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose volatile egomania is scarcely less extreme than that of the Italian Prime Minister. We in Britain didn't vote for either of those two mountebanks, of course, but Waugh's point was more about efficiency than accountability.

In fact, the argument in favour of more rule from the centre of Europe (wherever that is) has always rested on the thought that we would be better off not governed by those elected to office by our fellow Britons – loath as its proponents are to admit it. Thus, when Margaret Thatcher and the vast majority of the Conservative Parliamentary party campaigned vigorously for the Yes vote in the 1975 referendum on our membership of what was then called the Common Market, this was partly informed by the fact that Britain seemed to be heading for socialist government, with higher taxes and more union power than existed on the Continent.

Conversely, when Margaret Thatcher was in power as Prime Minister, the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, travelled here to address the Trades Union Congress and told the assembled delegates that Brussels would preserve and extend the rights of workers in a way they could not via the ballot box (since Labour at that time seemed unelectable). Indeed, the Labour Party's switch from suspicion of Brussels to starry-eyed appreciation stemmed precisely from that 1988 speech of Delors.

A clear admission of this came in one of the contributions from the opposition benches during last week's Commons debate on a motion to call for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. Opposing it, the Labour MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Michael Connarty, declared that: "We need to think about Delors and what happened when the Social Chapter came in. It protected the people I represent from Thatcherism in its worst aspects."

That made me recall a conversation I had with Gordon Brown during the dying years of the Major Government: Brown had committed Labour to implementing the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, from which the Tories had gained the UK an exemption. My question to Brown was why his party hadn't just pledged to bring in its own bespoke legislation to improve workers' rights, to be passed by any future majority it achieved in a British general election: but the word "European" had become sanctified within New Labour circles, perhaps because it wished to contrast its united enthusiasm for the European project with the bitter divisions on the matter within the Conservative Party.

Yet even the enthusiasm of New Labour paled beside that of the Liberal Democrats. A cynical interpretation would be to point out that since they had seemed to have no hope of ever gaining power in this country, it was predicable that they wanted to emulate the polities that dominate the eurozone, in which smaller parties can have an almost permanent foothold in power, via coalitions.

By a peculiar set of circumstances, however, they now find themselves in such a governing coalition; and while the Conservative backbenchers fulminate that the Lib Dems are blocking moves to restore more powers from Brussels to Westminster, one can make the opposite point that Nick Clegg and Co are being forced to toe the Tory line. After all, a few years ago Clegg told Prospect magazine that "the euro, despite the foolish assumption of many commentators... has provided great internal stability to the eurozone"; while Chris Huhne said in 2004 that "if we get rid of sterling and adopt the euro... this will give us a real control over our economic environment." Given that neither has ever withdrawn these opinions, still less admitted that they were mistaken, we can only assume that it is a daily torment for them to serve under a Tory PM implacably opposed to abolishing the pound for the euro.

There is, in fact, nothing in pure logic wrong with the idea of a fully federal Europe, with a single currency and a single European Central Bank chief ultimately answerable to a single European Finance Minister (rather in the same way that the Bank of England's Mervyn King is answerable to Chancellor Osborne). But that, the end point of the European project, requires the election of pan-European political parties, functioning as the Republican and Democratic parties do in the federation known as the United States of America.

This was expressed with great prescience in 1991 by the British political philosopher Noel Malcolm, in a book called Sense on Sovereignty. He pointed out that for as long as our principal identity and allegiance is national rather than pan-European, a federal system was not just unwise but inconceivable: "Can we really imagine a London housewife, during a Euro-general election watching the leader of her preferred Euro-party on television – a Greek, perhaps, making a rousing speech in Greek?"

Malcolm concluded it was possible we might come to feel we are part of a genuine Europe-wide political community, but that it would take many generations and would involve huge changes to many aspects of our lives: "Every time I meet a federalist, I just ask why anyone should think it necessary to embark on such an enormous, artificial, disruptive and risky project. I have not yet heard a single sensible answer."

That was written 20 years ago and the project is now fighting for its very survival precisely because Malcolm's central question was never properly addressed; although I suppose it was in this country, which is why we are not part of the euro, the world's most undemocratic currency.

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